In our own era, the sudden emergence of a new killer virus has completely changed our perception of what is normal, but can you imagine a world where epidemic diseases were the norm? Before vaccinations, smallpox was a worldwide killer, untreatable with the medical knowledge of the epoch. At least one third of those who contracted smallpox did not survive; those who did were left disfigured and ill for the rest of their lives. It left its victims’ faces scarred with peremptory pitted pockmarks. By the early 1800s, half of Europe had the scars.
Yet, some noticed that those who worked closely with livestock possessed a strange resistance to the virus. Edward Jenner (1749 – 1823), a country doctor, decided to put this idea to a test. In 1798, he lanced a sore on a female dairy worker’s hand and injected the ooze into the arm of his gardener’s son. A week later, Jenner exposed the boy to smallpox to see if he would get sick; as Jenner had hypothesized, the boy remained healthy. Just a year later, the first mass trials of the smallpox vaccine were already underway.
Jenner’s experiment succeeded because the sores on the hand of the woman who milked cows were caused by cowpox, a less lethal relative of the smallpox virus that caused pustules on the hands but usually left its victims unharmed. The two viruses were similar enough that exposure to cowpox conditioned the body’s defenses against smallpox. Cowpox infections and the immunity that came with them, were transferred to dairy workers after they touched the udders of infected animals. The name Jenner chose for this groundbreaking treatment, vaccination, derives from the Latin word for cow: “vacca”. Jenner demonstrated that cowpox could also be transferred by lancing a human’s sores and injecting the fluid into another person, known as the “arm to arm” method, which guaranteed a virtually inexhaustible supply of the vaccine even in cities far from the nearest farm.
At the time, it was thought that smallpox was transmitted via poisoned air, and the workings of the body’s immune response were still unknown to science. Many people embraced the vaccine, but science skeptics found the very idea of injecting some substance that was derived from a diseased animal into a healthy human seemed insane and a menace to public health.
William Rowley, the number one figure in the 19th century anti-vaccine movement, was the earliest predecessor to today’s charming anti-vaxxers. Jenner’s discovery of a vaccine against smallpox had caused a public health revolution and started the field of immunology, but it came decades before germ theory was known to scientists. Even those who embraced Jenner’s vaccine could not fully understand how it really worked.
Clergy, members of parliament, laborers, and even doctors voiced their opposition to the vaccine on religious and ethical grounds. Jenner’s supporters saw it as their moral duty to advance the cause of a life-saving technology; opponents felt a strong moral obligation to put a halt to vaccination at all costs. The conflict was reported in newspapers, in artwork, and even in the streets.
Rowley published a pamphlet that warned that those who received the vaccine risked developing “evil, blotches, ulcers, and mortification”, among other “beastly” diseases. He included an illustration of an elderly woman who upon receiving her dose allegedly sprouted horns.
In the mid-1800s, the English parliament passed laws making vaccination compulsory, providing free vaccinations for the poor, and creating a system of punishments for those who failed to get the shot. Many people saw such laws as an infringement of their personal liberty. Vaccines were compared to tattoos or branding because of the scar left by the injection. Those who resisted compared themselves to fugitive slaves. Across Britain, anti-vaccination groups collected money to help pay the fines incurred by their members refusing to vaccinate their children. Newspapers described effigies of Jenner or public vaccine authorities being burned; an anti-vaccine rally drew 100,000 demonstrators and prompted a parliamentary commission to review the vaccination laws.
Now, two centuries later, attempts to discredit the safety and reliability of vaccinations persist. Today’s anti-vaxxers echo those their 19th century forebears: allegations of shocking side effects and appeals to religious freedom. Jenner seemed to have assumed that the benefits of vaccination would be so self-evident that it would shut down all future debate. That 200 years later, so many people still deny the safety and reliability of the science he pioneered is something that the good doctor probably could never could have imagined.
All pictures in public domain. Source: https://wellcomecollection.org/works